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Broken Promises in Colombia's Coca Fields

Two hands holding coca leaves
Indigenous authorities highlight the cultural importance of coca within Nasa communities, in Colombia. © Ramon Iriarte

“For those of us who grew up with coca, it’s hard to imagine getting by with something else.” Eliécer had arrived at the mud-floored cantina a few minutes earlier, along with 25 other farmers who are members of a local chapter of Colombia’s National Union of Coca, Poppy and Marijuana Farmers. They had gathered that morning inside the Canoas indigenous reservation in Colombia’s southwestern province of Cauca, an epicenter of violence during the civil war. 

The purpose of the meeting, in the spring of 2019, was to hear from one of the local indigenous leaders who had been liaising with the regional government over a slew of unresolved issues related to the illegal source of their livelihoods, namely, growing coca. After years of unfulfilled assurances, the farmers, a mix of Nasa Indians and peasants, were wary of pursuing another dead-end discussion. The help they had been promised in exchange for the voluntary eradication of their crops seemed nowhere in sight, and with coca prices steadily on the rise, they saw no reason to further disrupt their already precarious situation. 

During the decades-long war in Colombia, FARC militants controlled vast and remote territories, where thousands of peasant families made a living from producing coca paste—the crude extract used to make cocaine—which cartels then bought, refined, and exported worldwide. When the government finally reached a peace agreement with the FARC in 2016, the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (known as PNIS) was a critical component of the deal. Under the program, farmers agreed to voluntarily uproot their coca fields. In exchange, the government would provide subsidies and training programs to help them swap illegal crops for alternative, legal ventures. 

Drug policy experts hailed the program as transformative, charting a clear course for farmers to transition away from illegal economies without following the traditional path of criminalization. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, around 99,000 families enrolled in the PNIS. 

But cracks in implementation began to show almost immediately. Under pressure to produce results quickly, the government of Juan Manuel Santos rushed into signing contracts with farmers before hashing out some of the logistical details of the program. Then, the 2018 change in government ushered in a strong backlash against the PNIS and other components of the peace deal.

Administrative obstacles, defunding, and lack of political will began to derail the voluntary substitution process. Soon, Colombia’s armed forces resumed forced eradication in many parts of the country, as farmers saw the economic alternatives that had been promised to them become less and less attainable. 

In northern Cauca, optimism about this once-celebrated program is dwindling among indigenous farming communities. As armed groups continue to vie for dominance in areas formerly controlled by the FARC, Cauca has seen some of the highest rates of assassinations of its social leaders —many of whom were advocates of crop substitution— since the signing of the peace deal. The Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca estimated in August that nearly 100 community members have been killed in the last year—six in the previous 30 days alone. 

But even against the backdrop of these power struggles, local agricultural communities have adapted and managed to maintain a measure of autonomy in their daily practices. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Resguardo Canoas, a Nasa indigenous reservation that maintains a traditional hierarchy and actively enforces its constitutionally guaranteed judicial independence. The indigenous authorities there serve as spokespeople for many local coca farmers in their negotiations with the government, though they say talks have long been stalled.

As a governing body, they have developed their own system for regulating the drug trade through checkpoints. Indigenous guards, armed with wooden batons and escorted by townspeople, regularly patrol the main highway that runs through Canoas and search vehicles they suspect to be transporting drugs. Anything they confiscate is immediately burned—a policy that, unsurprisingly, has incited the anger of the criminal mafias that operate in this area.

This places leaders like Daniel Ulcue in an awkward position. When the PNIS was introduced amid high hopes, Mr. Ulcue, then governor of the Canoas reservation, had some leverage in his quest to rid his territory of illicit crops. But now, as it becomes more apparent that the government lacks both the capacity and the resolve to fulfill elements of the peace deal, leaders who advocated for voluntary substitution are facing a crisis of credibility. And worse, they are being targeted by those whose economic interests are tied to the drug trade.

The tribal authorities affirm that the production of coca paste in the region has skyrocketed. In 2017, the number of hectares planted with coca across Colombia surged to an all-time high of 171,000, before dropping to 169,000 in 2018, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The mere 1.16 percent reduction was celebrated by the government of Iván Duque and recently motivated the U.S. government to praise Duque’s efforts to “restart a Colombian-led aerial eradication program.” Opposition parties, as well as human rights and environmental organizations, have repeatedly denounced this policy, voicing concerns about the impact on the environment and public health.

For rural families, coca is easy to grow and far more lucrative compared to other crops like coffee and bananas, whose prices have fallen in recent years. Even so, many farmers in Cauca and elsewhere continue to show interest in crop substitution. However, they assert that the government has yet to provide the technical assistance or livelihood alternatives that were offered, which for now leaves them little choice but to return to coca production.

While open to a different way of life, they are clear-eyed about what it will take to leave behind an illegal, yet efficient, economic model that has been in place for so long. What they know for certain is that, time and again, repression has proven to be the wrong answer.

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